German Owner of $1.3B Looted Jewish Art Trove Hid in Plain Sight for Decades

Why Is Cornelius Gurlitt Free Man — Dad Was Top Nazi

getty images

By Reuters

Published November 08, 2013.
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Cornelius Gurlitt was not registered with Munich municipal authorities and had no tax number or pension - enough to start a probe. Prosecutors in Augsburg who specialise in white-collar crime got a warrant to search his home with customs police.

On Feb. 28 2012, they rang the bell marked Gurlitt. Cornelius was at home.

The officials immediately recognised the significance of what they had discovered. Contradicting early media reports of priceless oils stashed among tins of fruit, Siegfried Kloeble of the Munich customs police said it was all stored professionally.

“The framed works were stored in a vertical stack, the way you would see in an art museum depot,” he said. “The works on paper were stored flat in drawers, out of the light.”

Working so discreetly that Gurlitt’s neighbours did not notice anything, a specialist art haulage company hired by the Bavarian authorities, took three painstaking days to pack and remove the collection.

Haulage experts said the removers would have measured the moisture and temperature, protected the canvases with chemical tiles and put works inside air-cushioned parcels, then boxes. It was then all taken to a secure, and still secret, location.

In early 2012, the Munich authorities informed the federal government of their find and asked for expert assistance from Berlin. Meike Hoffmann, an academic specialising in modernist art targeted by the Nazis, got the job.

For 18 months she worked between the secret depot and her Berlin university office before news of the spectacular find came under the unwelcome glare of the media. By that time Gurlitt had vanished.

RESTITUTION

In hindsight, it should have been obvious that Gurlitt was hiding something.

A few months earlier, he had sold a pastel of a lion tamer by German Expressionist master Max Beckmann for 864,000 euros, via the Cologne-based auction house Lempertz. They describe it as a “totally normal” transaction but recognised at the time that there was a “restitution problem” - a euphemism in the trade for a likely claim from Jewish owners from the Nazi era.

“An old gentleman contacted our Munich office,” said Karl-Sax Feddersen, a lawyer for Lempertz. “We had a restitution problem which we actively addressed and we found a solution ahead of the auction.” This involved sharing a portion of the auction proceeds with the claimant.


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